Raising the Stakes
October 7, 2013 2 Comments
Well, it happened! The United States government went into official shutdown mode on October 1 when Congress was unable to pass a Continuing Resolution [CR] authorizing expenditures for the current fiscal year. Non-discretionary spending (e.g. Medicare and military salaries) continues on as usual, but all discretionary funding that must be approved by Congress has now come to a halt.
Approximately 800,000 federal employees have been laid off across the nation. Veterans’ affairs, national parks, environmental protection, and a host of other services have been shut down. Many states are seeing services in their areas directly impacted. Civilian employees providing support services in the military have been sent home.
No new government contracts (including military contracts) can be awarded, nor can funding continue on existing projects. Soon hundreds of thousands of workers on these contracts will be laid off as well. It is taking a while, but the ripple effects of the shutdown are starting to be felt.
Since October 1, there has been little progress within Congress to resolve this stalemate. Instead, both sides seem to be maneuvering toward combining the CR for government funding with the debt ceiling negotiations that will need to be resolved in 2 week’s time.
If tough concessions are to be made, it will be seen as a sign of weakness to cave in early. The strategy is to go right up to the brink and pull back ONLY when there is no other alternative. Then one can’t be blamed for doing the only sane thing possible.
At least, that is how it goes in theory. With a core cadre of radical Tea Partiers who seem to believe there would be no serious consequences to exceeding the debt ceiling (Ted Cruz in one of them), this strategy doesn’t apply since, for them, going over the brink merely strengthens their hand.
If the other side believes the Tea Party is actually crazy enough to take the U.S. into financial insolvency, they may blink first to avoid the disaster. That in itself is a strategy in this dangerous game of chicken. Will they actually do it? Or do they just want us to think they will? That is the great uncertainty.
One thing has become very clear in the past week, however. The present shutdown is NOT about funding the government. It is solely about Obamacare.
The facts speak for themselves: Before the shutdown, the House passed a CR to fund government operations and attached an amendment to defund Obamacare. Then the Senate stripped off the defunding provision and passed the CR without any further changes. The House then submitted the same CR to the Senate with an amendment to delay Obamacare for a year. Again the Senate stripped off the amendment and passed the straight CR. Both Houses have passed the identical CR twice; they only disagree about Obamacare. If the issue of Obamacare could be split off into separate negotiations, the CR would pass and the shutdown could be ended immediately.
But, of course, that is not going to happen. If the issue of Obamacare were treated separately, Republicans would be back to the same situation as before where the House passed resolutions to defeat, amend, or delay provisions of the Affordable Care Act some 42 times, but with the Senate rejecting these moves every time.
The shutdown is the only leverage the Republican led House has now to get their way – that, and the debt ceiling in 2 week’s time. Those are their only bargaining chips, and they are not about to let them go.
However, both the Democrats in the Senate and President Obama have stated clearly and forcefully that they will not negotiate with a gun to their heads. If they did, one can imagine what a dangerous precedent it would set for the future. So here we sit, under the sword of Damocles, waiting to see whether or not the thread will snap.
Who’s in Charge?
The Tea Party is definitely calling the shots on this one. Many Republican House members have cowered to Tea Party demands, fearful of being primaried out of their seats in the next election. A small minority has recently tried to rally resistance to the Tea Partiers, but without success.
House Speaker John Boehner is well aware that he can’t summon a Republican majority in the House without Tea Party support. He is loath to suspend the informal Hastert Rule that will not allow any bill to come to the floor of the House that does not have a majority in favor of its passage. The best estimate is that there are some 30 to 40 strict hardline ideologue Tea Party members of the House who will reject any compromise that Boehner might put forward to resolve the current legislative impasse. Some conservative critics such as Charles Krauthammer have dubbed them the GOP’s “suicide caucus.”
Recent support for Tea Party initiatives has recently included up to 80 Republican House members. We have already seen how they are willing to confer instead with Ted Cruz in the Senate and follow his advice rather than Boehner’s. From all appearances, the House leader is finding himself quite unable to rein in their demands.
How are these events being perceived in the press? A sampling of editorials in leading American papers shows the Republicans shouldering most of the blame. And how are these events being perceived abroad? The international press is coming down even harder on the Republicans in Congress over this fiasco. Many are incredulous that the most powerful nation on earth can be hamstrung by a minority representing some 10 to 15% of the electorate at best. And they are not kind in their coverage. Even the staid CBC is using uncharacteristically harsh language in describing this political impasse.
Neil MacDonald, the Senior Washington Correspondent for CBC News wrote a stinging op-ed on Friday criticizing “the Republican civil war that’s now tearing apart the party, shuttering entire sections of the U.S. government, and maybe propelling the entire economy toward catastrophe.” It is well worth a careful read. Ezra Klein in The Washington Post carried a similar story on Saturday on the “civil war” currently underway in Republican ranks. Both stories help to put the current crisis in perspective.
How will it all end? John Boehner has forcefully stated that he will not let the United States default on its debt obligations. If he holds true to this position, it means that – very close to the final deadline – he will suspend the Hastert Rule (as he did to avoid the Fiscal Cliff at the end of 2011) and allow a motion raising the debt ceiling to come to the floor of the House that the Democrats and some conciliatory Republicans will assent to. The Senate will quickly ratify it as well, and the President will sign it into law as the clock ticks down the final minutes until financial disaster.
But such a move will also entail Boehner defying the Tea Party hardliners and incurring their wrath. He will likely be challenged (as he was at the beginning of the current session) by Tea Party members seeking to remove him as House leader.
Even if the U.S. does manage to step away from the brink, we should not expect a clear win for either side. The debt ceiling increase that is passed will be enough to avert the immediate crisis but likely not enough to resolve the issue completely. Republicans will cache this bargaining chip for another time. And there will come another time – not that far off – when the nation will be forced to go through this exasperating exercise once again.
Credits: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters; TV/AP; Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters; Gary Cameron/Reuters; Washington Post